Never let their best players beat you, so the saying goes.
Okay, it’s less of a saying, and more of a coaching philosophy. I can’t find any online attribution with a quick google search, but I believe this was a tenet of former New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick (some might say “current coach”, but I doubt anybody would follow this guy’s lead after three mediocre post-Tom Brady seasons).
But it’s one thing that we, as an R&D staff with the Maple Leafs, would really focus on when preparing coaches for games. A lot of our pregame prep time was focused on the strengths and weaknesses of top players for the opposition. If we played Boston and the trio of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak (combined, I know they were split up after the first period) registered just one secondary assist between them, we’d count that as a win. If Derek Forbort, Brandon Carlo, AJ Greer, and Pavel Zacha are scoring goals, well, that’s hockey. You only have so much prep time. Sometimes your depth guys will win you games, sometimes the opposition’s will.
Boston are a fantastic hockey team, and while I think that the shooting percentage of their depth players is unsustainable in the long run, they are where they are at the All-Star break for a reason. In this game especially, even though I had the Leafs out-chancing Boston at 5v5, it felt like the Leafs were hanging on for dear life and a much better team pulled away from them in the end. The Bruins are fantastic on offence, while the narrative will focus on their defence and goaltending, it’s worth noting is 2nd in the NHL in 5v5 offence (GF/60), behind only Seattle. They’re 1st in defence, but the offence is something that doesn’t seem to get enough credit.
Watching them against Toronto here, it looks like every player on the team is encouraged to jump up into the play. Every defenceman seemed to active at least once in the game, with Charlie McAvoy and Connor Clifton each leading several rushes. The only Bruins D that didn’t generate a controlled entry were Forbort and Carlo, both of whom scored goals. Despite the top line, or “Big 3” since they were split up, being held to just 4 scoring combined chances (and I’ll get further into that below) the team was not starved for offence, with Zacha, Craig Smith, Trent Frederic, and a host of others just spending lots of time around the net.
This is a difficult team to handle, partially because their best players are players that are going to set the table for others when they’re humming. Marchand and Bergeron are both up there in years and the 200-foot game isn’t what it was five years ago, but they’ve made up for it with an improved group of support players that can set the table and create for the whole team.
I like to say that a team’s forwards raise the floor of a team and the defencemen raise the ceiling: if good players are getting the puck to your good players in good situations, it gives a lift to the whole team. This is something that I think the Leafs generally do quite well, with strong puck-moving defenders on each pairing, requiring a lower degree of difficulty for forwards to break out the puck, and also meaning they get the puck more often in the neutral zone in stride. The Bruins were doing that a lot better.
It’s harder to not let their best players beat you when the best players are guys like Hampus Lindholm, McAvoy, and Clifton, who get a lot more puck touches and are always on the ice. I think the Leafs would love to get a chance to beat these guys in a 7-game series. We can tell how hard of an out the Bruins will be. Unlike last year’s Panthers, they don’t have many weak spots. Even in a game where the Big 3 got that one secondary assist, it was a dominant performance by a great team against a good team.
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